Getting Organized

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Can George Floyd’s death and its aftermath serve as catalysts for Wilmington’s citizens to join civic groups—or form new ones—and reclaim and renew their neighborhoods?

Change can begin with a simple act, says Kenyon Wilson, offering this example: One day last month, the father of four looked out the window of his home on West 34th Street and saw a neighbor cleaning up an alleyway on the other side of his block. It was something I had talked about doing,” says Wilson, “so I went over and joined him. Then someone else came along and joined us.”

The 34-year-old Wilson grew up just outside Wilmington and has lived in the city for 13 years. A co-founder of Influencers Lab Media, he believes in collaborative efforts and says small acts like cleaning up a trash-strewn alley can bring neighbors and neighborhoods together to begin organizing and, eventually, enable them to accomplish more meaningful changes.

This would seem to be flashpoint in history when the opportunity and the impetus to organize and to make those changes is at hand. The appalling video of George Floyd’s slow and agonizing death has sparked demonstrations, protests and cries for action—for change —in many cities, including Wilmington. This time, people seem to be saying, we will achieve change. This time, things will be different.

But, as U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester told Out & About last month: 

“If we want this time to be different, we’ve got to do different.”

For the Black and Brown citizens of Wilmington, that means shaking off a generation-long civic malaise spurred by racism and long-term disinvestment in housing, infrastructure, amenities and opportunities.

A Highway Runs Through It

The origin of Wilmington’s problems, in the opinion of many experts, was the construction nearly 60 years ago of I-95. The highway permanently changed the character of Delaware’s largest city, forcing more than a thousand households to sell their homes, and bulldozing 20-plus vibrant city blocks to make way for the interstate, seen as the way of the future.

Reeling in the wake of I-95 construction, Wilmington found itself dealing with many problems. Cumulatively, they contributed to the decline of neighborhoods, says Cassandra Marshall, Wilmington Democratic Party chair and president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association.

“It [the decline] has been partially due to the disinvestment in some local communities,” she says, “the flight of some Wilmingtonians to the suburbs, school systems that no longer provide shared centers of experience for kids—neighborhood schools where neighborhood kids are educated, play sports, get engaged with afterschool activities. Churches are not as neighborhood-based and many local churches are not engaged in any productive way outside of their own parishioners.”

This has left many residents and neighborhoods cynical, sapping civic pride and weakening community organizations, she says.

It wasn’t always thus, says Wilson. “When I was young, my neighborhood would put flyers out for civic association meetings. Plus the people who ran them were friends’ parents, coaches of our sports, and church members and leaders”—people he and his friends knew, creating a sense of community.

“Fast forward to today: not so much,” he says.

Another long-standing problem in Wilmington is the lack of home ownership. Renters make up 45 percent of the city’s population.

“The people who seek to get involved with their immediate neighborhood are folks that have a sense of duty taught to them, but more important, they tend to be homeowners,” Wilson says. “I don’t have a poll to reference, but I can tell you, renters are not attending these meetings in large numbers.”

Why Organize?

Organizing neighborhoods, or joining existing organizations, can produce many benefits for residents and the city as a whole. Marshall cites a few: “We can know our neighbors and build trust among ourselves. We can share our ambitions for our neighborhoods and start plans to get them done. We can show our institutions that we are engaged and looking for specific results and behavior. We can have productive conversations about what our communities should look like with our electeds.”

On a more basic level, she says, “The idea of local organizing, ownership of your block, your community, is one way to push for local change. You can organize a block or a neighborhood. It starts by knocking on doors and meeting your neighbors. ”

Neighbors may find allies in their own communities as well. City Councilman Chris Johnson, who serves the Seventh District, says that nascent organizations can reach out to their local faith leaders or non-profit leaders for advice.

“Often, these individuals are the closest to the heartbeat of the community and can give unfiltered insight into how to effectively organize a community,” Johnson says.

Once organized, says Marshall, a group can begin improving their environment—“even if it is to just to plan to sweep the block once a week, or figure out what to do about a problem house, or get street lights fixed, there is much a committed group of people can do.”

“I want people to know that they have the power, they just have to use it,” she adds.

On a larger scale, civic groups can address broken or outdated city policies. And that can be relatively easy to accomplish, Marshall says, because of Wilmington’s small size (approximately 71,000).

“The government is accessible, and real wins that can start making livable change to communities are relatively easy to do,” says the civic activist. “And strength in numbers can counteract some of the effects of long-term issues and provide support to longer-term solutions. We need to ask our institutions to do better, and organizing helps do that and helps demonstrate to institutions that we are here.”

48 Already in Place

Marshall rightly points out that many organizations already exist. In fact, the website for the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services lists 48 neighborhood associations. (For a full listing, go to wilmingtonde.gov/government/city-offices/constituent-services/civic-and-neighborhood-organizations.) So obviously, the structure is there. Filling those organizations with vibrant leaders and participants seems to be the major challenge.

“We’ve lost the young people,” says Wilson. “Those who attend meetings are older, or council people, or those who run in the council people’s circles. They’re aspiring politicians, or they represent non-profits.”

Wilson suggests getting creative to attract young people. In an email to O&A, he wrote: “We’d like to change the narrative when it comes to young people getting involved in their local community and engaging in their neighborhood associations. Create a challenge for them to attend their local meetings. With the recent ‘awakening’ of young people and the numbers that came out to protest, how can we extend that protest into actions? What if there was a social media challenge for people to attend their neighborhood’s civic association meeting, then post what they learned #communitybuilding.”

Marshall agrees. “The civic associations need help—and new blood.”

The Rallying Point

Like many others, Wilson hopes that George Floyd’s death will serve to rally people to action, and to organize.

“To many of us, we see George Floyd as ourselves,” Wilson says. “His murder has the effect of waking up people to the inequity of justice in policing. The question is, how does the mistreatment of people of color play into getting involved in your local community?”

Perhaps the final word should be left to Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first woman and the first African-American to represent Delaware in Congress. In mid-June, she sent this statement to O&A:

“Organizing and utilizing our collective voices and abilities is fundamental to how this nation has grown and evolved. Whether it was marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or gathering in town squares and city streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, change in this country is realized when we unite and organize. As I’ve said before, everyone can do something that no one else can do. It is time for all of us to take up individual and collective action to create that more perfect union.”

Additional Resources For Getting Organized

Want to get connected to your civic association? Contact Jennifer Prado, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services. 576-2489;  CityHelp@WilmingtonDE.gov.

Joining a community garden is a great way to meet your neighbors,
not to mention provide fresh produce for the household on a regular basis. Photo: Tim Hawk

Already involved, and looking for advanced training? City Councilman Chris Johnson says, “Learning the key tenets and strategies of successful organizers and campaigns will definitely pay dividends in the long run.”

He cites Network Delaware, the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, and the YWCA Delaware. “They offer cost-effective training programs for communities. Delaware Center for Justice also hosts organizing workshops.

“Nationally, there are several effective advocacy groups, including Moms Demand Action and Black Lives Matter. They have pushed an effective grassroots organizing agenda throughout every corner of this nation.”

LOCAL:
  Delaware Center for Justice: dcjustice.org;
  Metropolitan Wilm. Urban League: mwul.org;
  Network Delaware: thenetworkde.org;
  YWCA Delaware: ywcade.org;
  You can also contact Jennifer Prado, Director Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services, 576-2489; CityHelp@WilmingtonDE.gov.

NATIONAL:
  Black Lives Matter: blacklivesmatter.com;
  Moms Demand Action: momsdemandaction.org.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.